By Ben Lawrence
25 JUNE 2018
Aidan Turner is at present melting the nation’s collective heart as Captain Ross Poldark. But in his latest role, in a revival of Martin McDonagh’s controversial 2001 play, The Lieutenant of Inishmore, he plays Mad Padraic, a vocal member of the Irish National Liberation Army and a man considered too unhinged for the IRA.
And Michael Grandage, who is directing the new West End production, is not stinting on the visceral horror. “We are doing what’s on the page,” he tells me, backstage at the Noel Coward Theatre. “When they’re dismembering bodies, they’re dismembering bodies, and when they’re shooting people in the head, they’re shooting people in the head. Anything in Martin’s play that caused offence last time we are not doing anything about because we are living in a different time.”
McDonagh, one of Ireland’s greatest living writers, lauded for such stage work as Hangmen and The Pillowman, and films such as In Bruges and the Oscar-winning Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, is known for a dark, some might say sick, humour. Jokes about the IRA are, of course, always likely to draw an intake of breath, but Grandage believes the black comedy is necessary.
“I wouldn’t want to see a play that is this violent as a serious drama. It would not make for good theatre, and Martin understands that,” says Grandage. “You can’t stick a load of people on stage killing themselves and go, ‘Get it? It’s about terrorism, it’s about violence. Thank you and goodnight’. You need to see it through the prism of something else in order to realise the magnitude of what he’s trying to say.”
Turner, who has joined Grandage backstage and whose famous physique is hidden underneath a loose-fitting hoodie, understands the territory. He was born in the Republic of Ireland but has frequently travelled to the north, where he has a lot of friends.
“The world they live in is very different,” he says. “The way people treat each other and talk to each other, and the way violence is treated and accepted at a certain level – it can be quite shocking. The dialogue we all had with each other made it quite normalised. Martin shows that.”
To take an example from The Lieutenant of Inishmore, Mairead, a woman who manages to infiltrate the terrorists’ boys club and, eventually, falls in love with Mad Padraic, is advised by her mother: “Good luck, and try not to blow up any kids.”
“I guess that is what happens with decades of violence – you become desensitised to it,” says Turner. “There’s the daily grind of what that involves – whether it’s avoiding certain areas, ‘Don’t drive down the Falls Road at a certain time’ or ‘Don’t speak to that group of people’. Those things really matter.”
The play is set in 1993, when the Good Friday Agreement was still five years away and the Northern Ireland Peace Process was making small and erratic inroads. Turner was 10 at the time and, as a champion ballroom dancer, made frequent trips across the border.
“I was up there once a month for dancing lessons or for workshops or competitions. I remember going quickly from Loyalist to Nationalist areas and was very conscious of the changes. You would know because the pavements would be painted green, white and orange and there would be IRA flags and whatnot. Then you would see the Union Jack and murals of the Queen.
“Although I didn’t see any actual violence, there was definitely an underbelly, a different feeling.” Grandage believes the play’s reputation has become cemented in the years since it was written and that, if anything, it has gained more relevance, despite the official end of the Troubles.
“It makes us understand the banality of terrorism. Since Martin wrote it, we’ve had 9/11, we’ve had people hiring white vans and mounting pavements and mowing people down. Violence has taken on many different forms.”
I wonder if the play’s preoccupation with senseless killing can be linked to the current knife crime epidemic. Grandage believes this is part of McDonagh’s genius, that he has a gift for seeking out corners of society that aren’t necessarily talked about at the time.
Mad Padraic is extraordinarily violent, but Turner did not contemplate the idea of “playing evil” when he approached the part. “Padraic sees his struggle as a cause worth fighting for. When we first see him, he is in a warehouse in the middle of torturing a young lad for selling weed in a local school.
“He pulls out a couple of his toenails but he’s giving him good advice. He tells him he needs to go to hospital because his toes might go sceptic. He asks whether he has got the money to get there. He doesn’t see himself as a cruel person. So walking into a rehearsal room trying to play this idea of a bad person would derail it.”
I mention the recent backlash against McDonagh’s work, in particular Three Billboards… which faced accusations on social media of racism for the Damascene conversion of its vile sheriff character (played by Sam Rockwell). Does Grandage, as a director, worry that provocative writers will find themselves effectively neutered by the bleatings of over-sensitive snowflakes?
“Writers are among the bravest people I know. They want to go out and challenge us. I don’t see any evidence of them toning their voices down because of the world we now live in. Social media is not affecting them in the slightest.
“In fact, I think there is a bit of a “f— you mentality that has emerged out of it.”
The role of Mad Padraic is, for Turner, just one of the joys of acting – allowing him the variation every performer craves. After this, he is back on Poldark, filming its fifth and final series (he brushes off those James Bond rumours – “yes, they keep spinning round, don’t they?”) and working on those pectoral muscles.
“I’m always ticking away on that. Intermittent fasting is good for energy levels, and those costumes are quite tight.”
His laid-back stance does, however, harden slightly when I mention the whole male objectivity issue. “I am sick of it now,” he says. “I’ve commented on it so many times. The more I talk, the more it snowballs.”
After the brilliant and abrasive Lieutenant of Inishmore opens, Turner may be thankful that people will be talking about him for other reasons.